Cook, The Discoverer. Forster, George. 2007

Cook, The Discoverer. Forster, George. 2007

Forster, George. 
Cook, The Discoverer.
Hordern House Rare Books Pty. Ltd. 
ISBN 978-1-877567-49-2.

This lovely book describes itself as "a new translation accompanying a facsimile of 'Cook, der Entdecker. Versuch eines Denkmals' being a memoir of Captain Cook written by Georg Forster. First published in Berlin in 1787"

It is very easy to criticise a book and appear to be negative when you want to be positive, and this is no exception. The book starts with the essay "After The Fall - George Forster and the image of Captain Cook" by Dr. Nigel Erskine, which discusses the text of the book, the relationship between the Forsters and Cook and how it appears to have changed following Cook's death; the relationship between them and other members of the expedition; and how John Reinhold Forster appeared to be "short-changed" by the Admiralty when publishing his works. This essay is then followed by "Cook, der Entdecker", a facsimile of the original German publication, the Translator's Note, and then "Cook, the Discoverer", a translation into English. I felt the essay should have been positioned at the end of the book as it discusses items the reader has not yet had the opportunity to read in the text.

Having discussed my only negative criticism, let me look at the more positive aspects.

Georg Forster did not intend this to be a biography, but a different perspective by which to view Cook's deeds. Because this work is an appreciation and not a chronological diary of events, I had to keep thinking (not a bad idea!) about which voyage Forster was referring to when he was discussing his thoughts.

The writing is more of a philosophical analysis of Cook and how he achieved his great standing in the eighteenth century. Forster also confirms the idea that Cook had the ambition to get to the top and used his not inconsiderable talents to get there. He also confirms Cook's talent as a teacher, instructing in the art of navigation and surveying. He notes that Cook was generally the best estimator of distances after they had been confirmed by calculation.

At times Forster seems to ramble on, making me wonder what he is trying to tell me, but eventually he gets to the point. Perhaps it was the style of the day. He makes some very relevant comments, some of which I was partially aware of, but did not understand why. This book enabled me to understand not only some of the measures Cook took, but also the planning and forethought before the expeditions set sail.

A prime example of this was the "watch". At the time both the Royal and Merchant Navies split the crew into two, so that half of the crew would be on duty, whilst the other half was resting. The day was split into seven watches, two of two hours and five of four hours, so that the crew would work all of the watches in two days. Cook altered this to three watches, which gave the crew a longer recuperation period between watches. Whereas the Navy usually assigned one lieutenant and two midshipmen for a ship of the size of Resolution, Cook was assigned three lieutenants and six midshipmen. Consequently, Cook could send shore parties out without stripping the ship of all of its officers.

Forster also conjectures as to whether or not New Holland was an island or a continent. He then proceeds to call it a continent. Is this the first use of New Holland being called a continent? The translation carries marginal notes to help us understand references to Greek mythology and the works of contemporary scientists that all scholars of that time would have understood.

In conclusion, the book is relatively expensive, but beautifully presented with kangaroo leather binding. The book almost shouts at you "Read me!" It is very readable, but needs to be read once to get the flavour of it and then again, quite carefully, to bring home the salient points. I was amazed at how much I had not taken in when I started to re-read it.

Richard Hindle

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 43, volume 30, number 4 (2007).

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